The perfect bookshop weathers the storm

The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop is a clutter of paper treasure wedged between the haute couture and haute cuisine of Boston's Newbury Street. For 27 years the used-book store has lured students, publishing types, and at least one former Monitor editor in chief (often seen schlepping a teetering pile of book trade-ins across the Back Bay at lunchtime). In the bookshop's window, writer Harlan Ellison once perched for three days and wrote three stories as passersby gawked. Internet competition and rising costs – including a $12,000 monthly rent rarely met but never pursued in full by the appreciative landlord – are forcing the shop to close in December. The Monitor asked owner Vincent McCaffrey, who is looking for new space, to reflect on his dream – the perfect bookshop.

Because the perfect bookshop is still to be found around another unturned corner, it may yet weather the storms of our time. Nearly endless shelves, odd and fancy, small and large, angled here and narrow there, are filled alphabetically, or as the seller pleases.

The books themselves are unknown before you discover them. They surprise and delight the sympathies of imagination while teasing the senses with the smell of ink and binding glue and the texture of cloth and paper. They seduce the eye with the curve of a well-formed letter, seize the soul with an illustration of motion held steady for just that instant before the mind runs away with what will be. And they disturb the peaceful water of life with the meaning of a word, or calm the turbulence with only a sentence.

The prejudice of books is that the world can be discovered, known, reimagined, changed, saved, and savored.

The philosophy of a perfect bookshop is a study of wonder, without pinning the butterfly – to catch it in flight without stopping it.

The truth that not a thousand books can hold the mind of a single man, but that one book can open the minds of thousands, is not disturbed by the perfect bookshop. There is no pretense of holding the slow change of titles from day to day. No recommended or approved list of books can imprison our imagination.

The bookman's natural ignorance is only a strength so long as he cares to inquire and question and read again. He gauges the good or evil he might do against the words of customers and critics, seizes the opportunity to offer the best he can find, trying not to waste the better chance. He alone cannot determine the contents of the perfect bookshop. The titles tell more the story of those who come and go than those who stay. A person who sells a book is not a bookman at just any price – the cost of his soul is not determined by size or advertising. A bookman sells the value of being there instead; his profit is not in his pocket, but in his head.

The cost of space will not diminish the perfect bookshop. It fills the space worthy of its content and appropriate to its neighbors. The price of a book is the value of its words to those who will read – its pages worthless to those who will not. The competition of business is only the freedom won in voting booths and battlefields. Do we bother to choose, or do we accept the charity of those who have chosen for us?

Do we passively watch and listen, or do we strive and seek and pay the price of truth? Do we read, or do we reap the whirlwind? Our future will not be recorded on tapes and discs so soon unreadable to machines that cannot care. What we do will be written in books for those who choose to reason and learn rather than to fear and burn.

The prejudice of a bookshop is that there must be books.

They must have an odor, a feel, a weight, and occupy a space. The ephemeral world of the digital revolution is not sufficient for the book lover. The hertz and bits ofthe computer will not keep safe the intellect of a single moment, much less the heritage of the ages. The much despised freedom of the Western world was born with the press of Gutenberg and will die only with the closing of the door of the last perfect bookshop.

There is no right to own a bookshop, only the freedom that makes it possible. The bookshop will exist, as long as we may own and read what our hearts desire. The perfect bookshop will always be as real as the mind of man set free.

So long as writers write and readers wish to read, someone will somewhere start the perfect bookshop, just to play a part. It may not end as well as intended or reach the perfect measure of each or anyone.

But in fact, the perfect bookshop is forever within the grasp of those who reach, within the eye of those who wish to see. It could be where you found the book you wanted, or the one you never knew, but found and could not leave. It may have been the place you remember as a child, gone now, as the child you were is gone now, too. It might have been the one you stopped by briefly, the name remembered only by a tag or mark, or slip. So find another! Begin another! It's you that's missing, not the shop!

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